Atlantis Trilogy: The Remarkability of Unremarkable

Cryo Interactive was a very prolific developer and publisher. During twelve years of its activity, this French company has managed to release so many games, that there is a separate Wikipedia page, listing the most of them. Although you may find quite a variety of game genres in that list, Cryo is mostly remembered for its adventure games.

This legacy is more of notoriety than fame, though. Back in the early ’00s, the phrase ‘adventure game by Cryo Interactive’ bore an a priori meaning of a shallow, not more than a mediocre Myst-like experience, probably based on some public domain property.

Atlantis trilogy is one of the most successful of Cryo’s adventure series (sold over a million copies worldwide) and an epitome of the company’s remarkably unremarkable style.

The first game in the series was released in 1997 and was proudly called Atlantis: The Lost Tales. Indeed, the game’s story unravels on the titular island of Atlantis, where great civilization thrives. At least, stylish Ancient Greek-ish fashion, magical crystals fueling flying ships, and the rest of prosperous mythical nation’s attributes give that impression. But as the game’s protagonist Seth joins the ranks of an elite queen’s guard, everything begins to crumble: the queen disappears.

Next follows the chain of events, suited for an average sword and sandals B-movie: damsels in distress, evil chancellor tropes (queen’s evil consort, to be exact), an awakening of ancient gods, and even a maze with the minotaur. The story is quite entertaining in a guilty-pleasure way. It lacks depth, but stays coherent; the characters are shallow and forgettable, but the beautiful scenery compensates it; the humor is corny, but present, meaning the game doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Unfortunately, the gameplay aggressively strives to ruin all of the enjoyment you’re trying to have, playing The Lost Tales. As a first-person point-and-click adventure with a node-to-node movement system in the vein of MystAtlantis: The Lost Tales focuses itself on wandering and puzzles.

Wandering is partially enjoyable because of the visually pleasing aspect of the game: Atlantis looks nice. You can smoothly rotate the view a full 360°, looking around and enjoying beautiful landscapes. Nothing obscures the picture: a minimalistic HUD appears upon demand, and there are neither cursor nor crosshair included. Possible movement directions and interactive objects are highlighted with a suitable icon when the point of interest is placed squarely in the middle of the screen. Evidently, it creates a particular problem: some objects and directions are easy to miss, so eventually, an enjoyable strolling degrades to monotonous pixel-hunting.

Additionally, there are action sequences—chases, fights, etc. Those are utterly unforgiving. You have to move or use a specific object accurately and fast. Really fast. Even the slightest delay of millisecond may lead to Seth’s death or imprisonment (game over either way). Combined with occasionally stingy checkpoint autosaving system, those sequences ought to give you some awful time.

Puzzles, on the other hand, have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. They are annoying, mostly unoriginal, and so random it stings. In Myst puzzles are the part of a world’s mystery you try to get to the bottom of. In Atlantis: The Lost Tales puzzles are just there for you to stumble upon. Maybe I’m too picky, but I need a reason, no matter how slight it may be, for the puzzle to exist in the game world. There is a chance that I will enjoy guiding colorful snakes through a maze, for example, not only because it is meant to arbitrary move the plot forwards, but because it also makes me understand the game’s world and lore better.

There is one exception, though: Crabs of Destiny. It has a reason to exist in the game, and a pretty funny one to be fair. But technically it’s not a puzzle, but a gamble. So it depends on your luck whether you’ll enjoy this sequence, or it will suck all the living energy out of your soul.

Previously, I’ve compared the plot of Atlantis: The Lost Tales with a B-movie. It pretty much sums up an overall impression of this game. Like an exploitation film, this game tries to fit in a specific trend and exploit the hell out of it. That trend is New Age, which achieved a new spike in popularity during the ’90s. An eclectic mishmash of cultural stereotypes (Atlantis, Easter Island, Stonehenge), spiritual motives throughout the story, purely New Age aesthetics (some sequences look like a Scientologist’s fever dreams, and the music is quite self-explanatory). Hell, the protagonist’s name is Seth, remember?

As with the most New Age’ art’, it is all about trying to build a breathtaking form, filling it with a substance so vague that it is almost non-existent. Like homeopathy. But the game’s narrative and presentational coherence saves the day, redeeming Atlantis: The Lost Tales from the bottomless pit of spirituality, and leaving the player a solid chance to enjoy the game (at least in the form of fun B-movie).

Unfortunately, this can’t be said regarding the game’s sequels.

Atlantis II, known as Beyond Atlantis in North America, was released in 1999. Graphically the game has made significant progress: some characters border on the line of true photorealism. While most of the time, their photo-realistic faces look impressive, their features sometimes slip into the uncanny valley and may creep the shit out of some fragile hearts.

The only gameplay innovation to Atlantis formula has been an addition of the crosshair. This made navigating the gameworld slightly easier but failed to fix the pixel-hunting problem. Active objects blend with the background, albeit beautiful and complete picture this creates. There is a specific section in the game when pixel-hunting becomes really painful. I mean the one when you have to look for several stone stars in the jungle. The stars are tiny and often obscured by abundant vegetation, while the jungle location is quite large. It seems that I’ve spent an eternity searching for those damned things.

The New Age seeds, planted in Atlantis: The Lost Tales, have sprouted and thrived in Beyond Atlantis. The whole plot of the game is centered around the out-of-body experience of someone named Ten, who is also The Bearer of Light. He travels through three worlds (or rather mythical planes) on his way to the Shamballa, where some revelation about the metaphysical meaning of light and dark awaits, along with an arbitrary connection to a previous game’s story.

Each of those three worlds, which Ten’s soul visits, is a primitive encapsulation of a particular culture and its mythology. Firstly, The Bearer of Light enters the body of an Irish monk and helps some mythical beings of Celtic folklore to fulfill their mythical goal. After that, the wandering soul of our hero flights to another continent, landing straight into the body of an Aztec warrior, whose goal is to save his people from famine by awakening a couple of Aztec gods. That’s when this horrid jungle sequence, which still haunts me in my nightmares, occurs. Finally, Ten’s soul enters the body of a Chinese civil servant, who must save his land from drought and fight off the darkness incarnate (in the shape of a colossal shadow). This is achieved, among other things, by going through Chinese hell, fighting its frustrating bureaucracy, and meeting its animal-masked clerks. By the way, that’s another one of these sequences that may traumatize you forever.

Beyond Atlantis lacks coherence, upon which Atlantis: The Lost Tales’ story was constructed. Therefore, the only feature that could have to redeem this mishmash of a plot is absent. Unlike its predecessor, Beyond Atlantis is not a B-movie, but a straight-to-DVD spiritual film: weird, cringe-worthy, and not fun.

Still, it’s better than Atlantis III.

Atlantis III: The Lost World, released in 2001, is a game of the new century. It was made for a new generation of people. Only fresh minds of the 21st century are capable of fathoming the plot of this post-post-modern art piece.

Well, not really. It’s just that I have no idea what this game was about. It left me utterly confused. Atlantis III begins in the distant future of the year 2020. Our protagonist, a female archaeologist, comes to the desert in search of the mysterious Egyptian artifact. Her car wrecks, and a helpful Tuareg comes to the rescue. Then everything escalates to a whirlpool of randomness: bandits, crystal skull, Ancient Egypt, mammoths, and Aladdin. The plot is overwhelmingly dense for a couple of hours this game takes to beat.

I am still baffled by all of this. It’s not even New Age anymore, it’s just a load of mindfuckery. A good-looking load of mindfuckery nevertheless. The graphics are top-notch indeed: great animations, beautiful landscapes… Even a puzzle design is gorgeous. Atlantis III is more visual art than a game. Audio design, as well as the voice acting, also done well. Mostly. Correctly, every character sounds great, except the protagonist. She sounds indifferent and painfully bored. Ironically, that’s actually helped me to sympathize with her more.

The strangest thing, though, is that after unloading all of its mishmash of random metaphysical bullshit, the game ends quite abruptly. Leaving nothing but an empty void. It seems that the mind’s self-preservation system activates upon finishing Atlantis III and erases all of the game’s brain-damaging content out of your head. That’s definitely the most realistic explanation of the fact that I haven’t remembered almost anything of the game, which I beat a couple of days ago. This or the aliens, as I do remember a crystal skull… Or was it another franchise?

Cryo Interactive went bankrupt a year after the release of Atlantis III. But that wasn’t the end for the Atlantis series. There were two more games developed by Atlantis Interactive Entertainment—one of many new studios, born from Cryo’s ashes—and published by The Adventure Company. I know that I will have to talk about them for fully paying my dues in front of these series and leave them behind with full conscience. But that’s going to happen sometimes later in the future. As for now, I just can’t. I can’t…

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